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Trans Visibility and the Census: Change Begins with Inclusion

November 10th, 2015     by Danika McClure     Comments

Illustration by Erin McPhee

November is Transgender Awareness Month, which aims to help raise the visibility of the trans and gender non-conforming population. With recent increased visibility of celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlin Jenner, and numerous television shows featuring transgender characters, it’s all too easy to forget that until very recently, the transgender community was unfamiliar to most people in the cisgender population. This month, it’s time to change that.

Last year Laverne Cox, best known for her work on the Netflix Series “Orange is the New Black,” famously graced the cover of TIME magazine–a moment that has been called “the transgender tipping point.” But over the past few months, Cox began tackling what might be her most important venture to date: The United State Census Bureau.

Cox appeared in a panel at the Social Good Summit September 28th with Shelby Chestnut, from the Anti-Violence Project, and Cecilia Chung, of the Transgender Law Center. The trio discussed the ways that a lack of census data affects the trans population. Cox said,

“I was thinking that visibility is only part of the equation…we must have social policy, systemic change. And then I thought about the Census. Systemically, this idea of the gender binary is very much institutionalized in the fact that we just don’t count trans people.”

US census data as it currently exists includes only two options for gender identity: male and female, meaning that the Census Bureau literally doesn’t count people whose identity has changed throughout their life, or who don’t identify with either category. This is an oversight that has far reaching consequences, especially when you consider that we don’t have an accurate statistic to measure the trans population in the United States, much less the world.

Canada too has a complicated relationship with the census. Although the 2001 Canadian Census used the slogan “Count yourself in!”, the Census provides only a select few categories to count oneself into. In this sense, similarly to censuses around the world, by controlling the categories in which people identify, the Canadian state is actively erasing certain identities.

Recently, however, the Canadian Liberal government announced that it would once again reintroduce the long form census. Previously axed by conservatives in 2010 for being too intrusive, the long form census will once again include information about cultural heritage, education, and work habits. With the reinstatement of these once previously withheld categories, now may be the perfect time to petition the cabinet for inclusion of the transgender population.

There are countries who have included transgender people in their census. In 2011, Nepal became the first country in the world to offer a third gender option on their census. Other countries have since followed. The census in India counted 490,000 transgender people living in the country as of 2014. For Western countries, however, there is still no accurate estimation for the transgender population.

“What message are we sending to those who are trans and gender nonconforming when we don’t even count them?…We suggest that their identities don’t even matter.” -Laverne Cox at the 2015 Social Good Summit

Gary Gates, an LGBTQ demographer responsible for the most frequently cited estimate of the LGBTQ population, approximates the transgender population of the United States to be around 700,000 people, or .3 percent of the population [pdf].

This information was gathered from two surveys. The first, a 2009 study in Massachusetts, in which .5 percent of respondents ages 18-64 identified as transgender. The other, a survey done in California in 2003, looked at trends of LGBT tobacco use and found that .1 percent of adults in California identified as transgender. Clearly, these surveys have substantial limitations, and these numbers obviously vary from state to state.

Gates has spent a majority of his career trying to convince survey writers to be more cognizant of including LGBT Americans in their research, and recently, major breakthroughs have been made. In 2013, the Center for Disease Control’s National Health Interview Survey [pdf] included a section on sexual orientation. This is the first time data like this has been available for gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals.

While this is progress worthy of celebration, gender identity has still been discluded from national surveys so far, which Gates describes as a demographic malpractice.

Unfortunately, as with most progressive endeavors, headway in the LGBTQ community is often made in a series of narrowly focused small steps. While many of us have spent the past year celebrating the incredible victory that was marriage equality, and found growing acceptance in gay pride parades which have now become cultural destinations, other important issues often go by the wayside. Many of these forgotten issues affect the most marginalized communities the most, especially Trans people of color.

Raquel Willis highlights this by saying,

We’re at an interesting turning point now. Any day now, we could be hearing that our country is finally ready to respect our humanity and our right to love and be recognized beyond gender…It’s great, but as I’m a trans woman and activist, my focus has changed…I’m regularly worried about adequate health care and doctors who know what’s up with my body. I’m lucky now, but there was also a time when I was worried I’d be outed and lose my job. Then I’d be in the spiral of homelessness that consumes much of my community. It’s true. Trans folk often have much more urgent things to worry about, like finding restrooms, validating educational spaces, housing, and more. As well, I can’t help but think about all of the trans women my community has lost this year. It’s difficult when the larger queer community, which arguably has more social power and influence, ignores the fact that we can multitask…We can be more than a single-issue movement.

Throughout the Social Good Summit panel, Cox argued that violence against trans people exists, in part, because they are not counted as a valuable population.

Chestnut pointed out that in 2015 alone, there have been 19 homicides of transgender and gender non-conforming people, and of those 17 were trans women of colour. Cox then suggested that this type of violence is directly related to inadequate data. Chestnut added that by pushing for Census data collection, we’ll see hard numbers regarding systemic issues trans people face, including homelessness, housing discrimination, violence, and poverty.

These are issues which lawmakers are currently unable to address. Without an accurate count of the people who make up their constituencies, it’s impossible for them to prioritize their interests and advocate for their social equality. This gap in statistical data might be a reason the trans community is so deeply disenfranchised.

In order for the government to effectively serve its citizens, it needs to know who its citizens are. The lack of appropriate data examining the ways in which trans communities are marginalized is a form of statistical malpractice that has far reaching and disastrous consequences for minority communities.

Change is needed for this equality to become reality. The inclusion of the trans community into all aspects of society is not just important to that community’s well being, but awareness surrounding issues they face are necessary for the progression of feminist ideologies. The more women like Cox speak up about these issues, the closer we will come to progress and change in disenfranchised communities.

Author Bio: Danika McClure is an unapologetic Drake fangirl who writes feminist rants for a living. Loves snorty dogs, guacamole, and angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion. You can follow her on Twitter @sadwhitegrrl

Tags: body politics

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